Stephanie Storm

KENT: Showtime starts tonight.

It’s not a reference to the 1980s glory days of the Magic Johnson-led Los Angeles Lakers.

Instead, “Showtime” is the motto first-year football coach Paul Haynes coined for Kent State, a motto he has emblazoned on the walls of his office and on most of the team’s literature.

“Showtime means when the lights go on, we’re here to play,” Haynes said.

That starts at 6 tonight against Liberty at Dix Stadium.

Haynes considers last year’s program-record 11 wins under former coach Darrell Hazell as the foundation of turning around decades of losing at Kent State. He doesn’t buy into the concept that a tough early schedule and player turnover at key positions — quarterback, offensive line and linebacker — are obstacles that will keep the Flashes from building off last year’s success.

“There are always things to overcome each season for every team,” said Haynes, a former Ohio State assistant defensive coach and Arkansas defensive coordinator. “We feel good where we’re at right now. Guys who were a little banged up and didn’t have much time in the spring to practice were able to get their legs underneath them in fall camp and for the most part, we’re healthy.”

It helps that Kent State begins the season as a big favorite against visiting Liberty University, a member of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (formally known as Division 1-AA) on ESPN3.

But after the opener, the Flashes’ next five games, including back-to-back road games at LSU and Penn State, could prove to be a tough stretch that might shake the confidence built last season.

In addition, KSU is relying on redshirt freshman Colin Reardon to take over for four-year starter Spencer Keith at quarterback, although senior David Fisher will be waiting in the wings if Reardon stumbles.

The Flashes also spent preseason camp looking to replace three starting offensive linemen (including left tackle Brian Winters, who was the New York Jets’ third-round selection in the NFL Draft) and two all-conference senior linebackers.

“The thing I’m most pleased with is the distance we’ve traveled in a short period of time in terms of improvement,” said KSU defensive coordinator Brian George. “It’s something we have to continue to do as we go through the season, as we still need to keep getting better at all the little things. But most of it at this point, it’s technique, recognition of certain things that an offense may give us and communication.”

Between a quarterback battle and trying out new combinations on a young rebuilding offensive line, Flashes offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Brian Rock spent a majority of camp determining what the offense’s identity will be this season.

“We threw a lot at them,” Rock said. “We threw a lot more offense at them then maybe we have in past years, mainly because the big question we had to get answered was what are we going to be good at? What can we hang our hat on? We had to find things that our guys did well and zero in on that.”

Even with the return of the 1,000-yard rushing tandem of Heisman Trophy hopeful Dri Archer and Trayion Durham, Rock isn’t willing to dub the Flashes a run-first offense.

“We are developing the guys up front that are blocking for them,” Rock said. “So when you’re talking about a running game, you’re talking about a complete unit. Yes, it’s helpful to have guys that have game experience and have had the football in their hands and understand about making plays, ball security and toughness.

“But we have to mesh that with what our offensive line can do well and make sure that comes together. The offensive line, more than any other position on the field, has to play together.”

The only other time Kent State faced Liberty was in 2004 when former option quarterback Josh Cribbs completed 20-of-29 passes for two touchdowns and ran for 105 yards on 13 carries and another touchdown to lead the Flashes to a 38-10 victory.

Flames’ second-year coach Turner Gill (who led Liberty to a 6-5 record last year, winning six of their last seven games) is 3-1 against KSU and 2-0 at Dix Stadium from his days at the helm of Mid-American Conference foe Buffalo. During his weekly news conference, Gill quickly touched on what he expects to be his team’s biggest challenge against the Flashes.

“They have a very dynamic and explosive football player whose probably one of the best football players in the country in Dri Archer,” said Gill, who did not exchange game films with Kent State. “His speed is the first thing you see and he can make plays in a heartbeat. We have to make sure we maintain him. We’re not going to be able to stop him, but we better be able to slow him down and maintain his big plays of more than 20 yards.”

Archer’s talent is the one definite the Flashes can count on this season. Only time will tell what other strengths the Flashes develop as they hope to live up to the “Showtime” motto.

Stephanie Storm can be reached at sstorm@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Kent State blog at https://ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/sports.abj.